By 1624, only 8 years after Shakespeare‘s death, England was in political trouble. James the First, despite ordering the famous translation of the Bible, was a hopeless king. After him his son, Charles the First proved such a dictatorial ruler that parliament eventually raised an army (the Roundheads) under Cromwell, won the battles, and had him executed in 1649. The army and Parliament represented the new rich protestant middle class who were puritan in their habits, calvinistic in their beliefs and organised their churches, still nominally Anglican, more like the Presbyterians of Scotland. They were strongest in the North of England.
George Fox was a puritan farmer‘s son in the Mid-North from a village called Drayton-in-the-Clay. He was a hefty fellow, but not your ordinary rough-and-tumble boy. He had just enough schooling to read and write; he was very interested in the religious ideas of the time but was a lonely young man prone to bouts of depression. In particular he was distressed by the clash between what was preached by the clergy and the practice of those same preachers.
After an apprenticeship as a shoemaker in a neighbouring town he inherited some money, just enough to let him travel (with occasional periods at his trade) on his quest for a satisfactory faith. Travelling south towards London he met many Baptists, who were the main radical sectarians of the time, and many “ranters”, that is preachers who believed they had God‘s message but belonged to no church or sect. So many people were trying out different religious ideas that historians have identified well over 100 different sects in the early 1600s.
Still dissatisfied and gloomy George travelled north towards home. There, in 1647, he had a key revelation (he called them “openings”) that he summed up in the phrase, “There is one, even Jesus Christ, who can speak to thy condition.” This encapsulates his discovery that there is no need for priests, clergy, churches, learning and theology; every person can be directly in touch with God and should follow Jesus‘s teachings from their own consciences, the “light within.”
People remarked on his change of spirit and certainly after that there was no stopping him. He set off north into Yorkshire and across the Pennines, preaching and gathering converts particularly from small groups called “seekers”. His message was, “Listen to what God is saying to you”. He, and his listeners, heard that God was fed up with absentee clergy living very well on tithes and doing religion by rote. They worshipped by listening in silence for God‘s word and often this led to outbursts of enthusiasm, quaking and ecstatic outpourings, marches on church services which they interrupted, preaching against unfair prices and drunkenness at town markets. They quickly grew in numbers, and sent evangelist missionaries all over the country. Then began the imprisonments and punishments for disturbing the peace, refusing to swear oaths, doff hats, pay tithes, and bear arms, which were part of being a Quaker for 40 years. George, the obvious leader, led a life of travel, (to Scotland, Wales, America, the Carribean, Holland and Germany as well as up and down England) preaching, and collecting insults, persecutions and imprisonments. He was in jail eight times for one to two and a half years, in appalling conditions and took months to recover his health each time.
In 1658 the first big gathering of all Quakers in England was held in London and Fox preached to three thousand. There were about 30,000 Friends all told, still called by an earlier name "The Children of the Light"; George was only 33 years old and had been preaching for only 7 years. Now he faced the problem that unless there was some form of organisation to hold all these converts together the persecutions would break them all up into isolated ranters. He spread the idea of "Monthly Meetings" which would handle any business, money, and disputes. When a Quaker declared that no one but he or she had God‘s word, then the Monthly Meeting met and the truth was sought by everyone listening for Gods word and coming to a consensus consideration.
George took a while to make up his mind about several things we take for granted. He worked on opening up a place for women in the Society, and gradually encouraged Women‘s Meetings among Quakers who thought women could preach but not handle money nor judge how sincere couples wanting to marry were. His endorsement of pacifism took a while, but became very firm. He was a great publicist, using widely circulated letters (epistles) to encourage and spread the word, and there was a vast number of pamphlets printed by Quakers. Another bit of “modern” technology which the Quakers mastered was using the mails. Thus they were able to let each other know when Meetings needed help, when members were in prison without legal support, were destitute, or were looking for a new land to emigrate to. One of George‘s great inventions was the compiling of lists of sufferings and getting committees to get something done about them, including lobbying the government with this evidence of unjust laws and just laws not carried out.
George married in 1669. His earliest convert from a family of the upper classes had been Margaret Fell, the wife of a Judge in Cumberland. Margaret became a sort of secretary to the new movement and kept in constant correspondence with George and the new Meetings. She too suffered several long terms in prison. Eleven years after Judge Fell‘s death, when she was 55 years old and Fox was 45, they married and all Quakers were certain that the the marriage was made in heaven. However they were not together very much. George set off to visit the American colonies and Margaret went to prison. She was still there when he returned over a year later.
His American trip took him to Barbados where some slave-owning English plantation owners became Quakers, then on to Carolina, and Virginia, where slaves were fewer. George hardly mentions slaves - the Quaker opposition to slavery was to begin a century later. He travelled among, and preached to, settlers and Indians in Maryland, New Jersey, and New England. His journeys across frozen rivers, through big seas in small boats and walking through very rough country, sleeping outside in the rain and in teepees, show him still tough and determined.
Back in England the restoration, particularly King James II, was a failure politically. James was chased off the throne and his daughter (married to a Prince in the Netherlands) invited to be queen. William and Mary were the first “constitutional monarchy”. This is called the Glorious Revolution, not a shot was fired, and Parliament settled in to be the real government. At last the Quakers were granted, along with other sectarians and the Jews, what they had been hoping for - the Act of Toleration - and persecution ceased. And although Fox‘s vision of an England (and then a whole world) acting in love under God‘s direct word to all mankind, did not eventuate, at least those who did act by Jesus‘s direct word were harried no longer.
George had been pulling back from active involvement in Quaker affairs with the onset of what was probably congestive heart failure. He died in 1691, in London; his faithful wife was in Cumberland. It took the funeral procession two hours to walk the mile to the cemetery, carefully walking three-by-three on the road side not to disrupt traffic. The cemetery could not contain the crush of mourners.
We have a good record of him from contemporaries, and his "Journal", though it is muddled and by no means an easy read, gives a picture of his life and how he took the many blows as well as the many successes he met. His friend William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania) said of him, “An original, being no man‘s copy.” He was an amiable man, with a heart full of love for his fellows. He was not just a charismatic preacher but he felt and understood the moral and political ills of his day, he thought logically and bluntly about the message of Jesus, proving its power, and he had a gift for organisation: he was tender to all people, steadfast to Jesus, and (by 17th Century standards) very modern.